Archive - November, 2015

A Message for Advent

2015 Advent Message video full screen (002)

Click on the image above to access Bishop Lowry’s 2015 Advent Message – a message that reminds that the Lord Jesus Christ was born in a time similar to our own – a time of political unrest, oppression, terrorism and change. He also reminds that the hope and promise that came with the birth of the Christ child more than 2000 years ago rings as true and necessary today as it did on that Silent Night long ago.

 

Risk, Fear, and Thanksgiving ©

 “All who want to come after me must say not to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me will be saved” (Luke 9:23-24).

 Reading various responses related to Syrian refugees and letting those who have gone through a two-year vetting process enter America in the newspaper and listing online, I am impressed with our desire for a safe, risk-free America. It is almost as if some are nationally advocating that we live like the little boy in the commercial exiting the family van. His mother has dressed him in a football helmet with catcher’s mask over the helmet and a matching chest protector, shoulder pads and hockey knee pads.  Incessantly the mother is giving instructions about being safe and not doing anything that is dangerous or risky. 

 With most of us I laugh at the ridiculously over protective parent.  And yet … there is a part of me that deeply understands and appreciates such desire for safety. I want my family safe! I want my country safe! The randomness of terrorism is terrifying.  Which brings me to a still deeper reflection.

 I am conscious that risk and fear are yoked to discipleship and courage. Much of my internal argument (and our external debate as Christians with the larger political culture) over risk and safety pushes me (us) back on my (our) relationship with Jesus. The Lord challenges me (us) to reject the rule of fear and let Him (Christ) rule. Fear remains but it does not reign. One of C.S. Lewis’s comments comes to mind.  It is a scene from his famous Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the scene Mr. Beaver is introducing the children to Aslan, the great Christ character who appears as a mighty lion. 

 “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan [the youngest of the 3 young human children in the allegory].  “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom not the fear of this world (Proverbs 9:10).  The Apostle Paul reached for this great biblical truth when he wrote:  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Roams 5:1-5, NRSV).

 Divine courage, Holy Spirit-infused endurance, brings us to grace filled hope in deeper discipleship.  Risk in Christ’s name and at His service brings us to true thanksgiving.  Whatever actions politician’s take, Christians reach out with the love of Christ.  Jesus isn’t safe.  The Christian life is a call to a great adventure in service to the living Lord.  Such hope does not disappoint us. 

 In scary submission to Christ, I am (we are) delivered to the deeper joy of thanksgiving.  Those Pilgrim fathers and mothers who risked the storms of the north Atlantic knew this truth.  Those Native Americans who risked reaching out to those same pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving in the “New World” live such truth (even if Christ was yet unknown to them!).  Now it is our time to step up and step out for Christ.

 Sunday while sitting in worship I listened as the Arborlawn UMC choir sang the great prayer verse “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful.”  Prayerfully listening I was transported back to my time in France a couple of years ago.  At Taize we sang this same praise chorus in a variety of language.  The words are an appropriate prayer for our time of Thanksgiving.

 “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
            In the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid.
            Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”

 

 

 

Faith on Trial: Responding to Terrorism in Today’s World ©

Last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent actions seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice rightly captures our hearts and minds in a wide variety of ways.  The sheer barbarism of the attacks spreads anxiety and fear among the bravest.  A deep sense of vulnerability saturates the most stalwart among us.  How are Christians to respond to terrorism in today’s world?

In a real sense, terrorism by its very nature puts our faith as Christ followers on trial.  It challenges us at the core of our beliefs.  Are we willing to hold to Christ whose very presence is announced with the angelic admonition “fear not!” (Luke 2:10)?

My initial response to the news of the Paris attacks was white hot fear-driven anger.  Only on calming down, entering into prayer, and engaging in less heated reflection did I realize that terrorism puts my faith on trial.

I believe our Lord’s admonition to love our neighbor.  I am committed in principle to the Savior’s call to holiness in rejecting hate.  The words of Jesus echo in the throne room of my mind.  “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

I am conscious that it is easy to be Christian in times of peace and plenty and in settings of safety and joy.  I am also quite aware that the test of the Christian faith comes on the streets of Paris, in rhetorical punditry of television and the cancer ward of the local hospital.

Our faith is put on trial in:

  1. The temptation to reject the Lord’s leading and be driven instead by a desire for revenge. Prayerful reflection and careful thinking are at a premium if our response is to be faithful to the gospel and Lordship of Christ. Those who enact such evil must be brought to justice. There is nothing Christian or holy in allowing terror to reign unchecked. Let us be clear – terror and terrorism is an outgrowth of Satan’s rage. And yet, we must also be carefully clear and faithfully obedient in our response. Matching evil with evil is not the way of Christ. We seek justice not vengeance (Romans 12:19).
  2. The engulfing emotions of fear and fear driven disregard for others who are in dire need. Our model, guide and ruler is the one who was crucified for others, notably for those who were (and are!) guilty of sin. Instead of living under a reign of fear, Jesus reached out stretching His arms wide in an embrace of love. Let us be sympathetic to each other as we wrestle with fear’s grip. Fear is a natural and in some ways healthy response to the horrors of unchecked terror. It alerts us to the need to take protective steps and seek justice for all. The Christian difference is not that fear is not present. It is rather that fear does not reign. It does not rule! Christ alone is Lord! However powerful our emotions, they too are subject to Him. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18).
  3. Our vulnerability mixed with fear and anger which seduces us to react by blaming the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. Terrorism is a tool of evil which, if left unchecked by Christian values and by the rule of Christ, can lead us to the unfaithful response of prejudice. It is worth carefully noting that the earliest Christians consistently refused to simply take care of only other Christians. They consciously and in allegiance to Christ reached out to any in need. There were no litmus tests for who should receive love and care. Teachings from Jesus like the Parable of the Good Samaritan drove their actions. (See Luke 10:35.) Instructions like James 1:27 were a basic part of the fabric of their response, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” Let there be no mistake. To only take care of Christians or just be concerned about Americans is not worthy of the gospel. It is not faithful to the clear teaching of Christ. (Check out Jude 1:12 and its explicit rejection of those who care only for themselves.)

As your bishop, I call on us to be a people of faith.  May we reflect the example of Christ and be known the world over for a love which conquers fear.  Jesus our Savior first lived among us as a refugee.  He calls us now to reach out to those refugees fleeing the unspeakable evils of terror and war’s destruction.  May we be instruments of peace offering a place of hope, help and home to those most in need.  May religious prejudice and national jingoism be unknown among us.

Do you recall the Apostle’s closing advice in I Peter?  First Peter is written as a baptismal address to new Christians for a church undergoing dire persecution.  Terror is an everyday part of their lives.  In such context the Apostle closes his letter with advice fit again for today.  “Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.  After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen” (I Peter 5:6-11).

Training for a Job that No Longer Exists ©

I was ordained Deacon in 1974, graduated from seminary in 1976, and ordained elder in 1977. The church I entered was basking in the setting sun of cultural Christendom. As a newly minted pastor one of the primary points of my reference was my District Superintendent (DS). In ecclesiological terms a pastor under appointment to a local church reports to the congregation’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and to the District Superintendent. DSes were to serve as the pastor’s guide and mentor, supervisor and evaluator. The DS represented the Pastor in Cabinet meetings where appointments were made under the authority of the bishop. In short, the position of DS was designed to carry both pastoral and managerial functions. Evolving from the frontier days of missional outreach and connection, it was the natural outgrowth of a management culture. That job no longer exists. A DS who operates out of the 1960s management culture is a failure- and even worse a problem for both churches and clergy.

Unfortunately this job, which no longer exists, is one which I was mentored to do. For many the height of their ministry was not pastoring a local church but serving on Bishop’s Cabinet as a DS with supervisory responsibility for somewhere between 30 and 45 churches. Good DSes kept the system running. They settled conflict. They negotiated dilemmas. They coached younger clergy helping them to assimilate into a bureaucratic church culture. One of my mentors, Rev. Bob Grimes, who was himself both a very effective pastor of large regional churches worshipping over 1,000 in average attendance and a District Superintendent, used to comment: “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

Yet today the job of DS is so different that it effectively no longer exists as originally designed in a pastoral/bureaucratic structure. Our culture has changed dramatically. Typically pastors do not move as often. The tenure of a pastor changes the relationship with both the church and the denomination. Furthermore, we have slowly and painfully learned that someone can be either a pastor or supervisor but not effectively serve as both. Additionally, there is a skill set need for a DS that relates to church transformation/renewal/revival which involves a highly flexible collaborative and adaptive learning. It used to be that a DS ran her or his own district and conference staff did not interfere with his/her area of supervision. Now a DS that cannot work effectively with conference staff (and vice versa) needs to be replaced. The day of territorialism is dead and gone.

My list could go on but the reader gets the drift. I learned how to parent from watching my parents. Those who have served as DSes have learned to be a DS by watching those who went before. Today, however, the job is so in flux and change; the needs are so different and compel collaboration, adaptively and experimentation that length of tenure is no longer a critical criteria.

Over the years, various General Conferences have added responsibilities to the position of DS. They have done so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately now there are so many different disciplinary requirements for the job that no one can effectively meet all the requirements. As it is written in The Book of Discipline, the job is designed for failure. Which brings me to today.

Over the last 3 quadrennium (12 years), all across the United Methodist Church in America, experiments have been going on over the deployment of DSes for the stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is widespread agreement that a District Superintendent is to be the “chief mission strategist” for their district. What is far from clear however is just what is meant by the phrase “chief mission strategist.”

Those who carefully understand the full implication of the Exodus Project for the Central Texas Conference will realize that over the past 6 or 7 years there have been a great deal of changes in how our Cabinet operates. Appointments are made based on mission-field effectiveness and not tenure. There is a high level of collaborative interaction between the conference staff and the districts (both HCI and our various Mission initiatives are examples of this morphing change). The role of the DS is far closer to that of a teacher and coach than as a pastor/supervisor.

In truth we don’t yet fully understand the role of the District Superintendent in this new post-Christendom world we seek to minister to. We are learning and experimenting. This is a good, godly thing. The Holy Spirit is leading us. My old friend and mentor Bob Grimes, gone now over 10 years, was and is right. “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

In a period of great adaptive change, we need good effective courageous DSes who “get it” now more than ever. We need the kind of people leading Districts who have themselves been faithful and fruitful building vital congregations. We need leaders who love the local church and are willing to go the extra mile to help in the development of a new generation of clergy and lay leaders. We need people who can put aside ego and territoriality to work joyfully with others. And most of all, we need people who are sold out on Christ – his ministry, mission and salvation.

Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership ©

I find myself slowly and impatiently (see my previous blog!) recovering from knee replacement surgery. I have just begun my second week at home dominated by physical therapy and much needed rest.  As I do so, I hope to take some time to write a couple (or more) blogs that look ahead at leadership and life together in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) of the United Methodist Church.  While the blogs will be directed explicitly at my episcopal area (The Fort Worth Episcopal Area), I hope that readers from other Conferences and Christian denominations might find their thinking stimulated in ways that are applicable to their specific context for ministry.

In early September the CTC met again with David Simpson from the Table Group. (The Table Group is an organization set up by Patrick Lencioni which helps organizations – both profit and non-profit – develop leadership health in order to carry out their stated mission.)  This time our focus was on succession planning.

Let me explain. In the United Methodist Church (UMC), District Superintendents may serve a maximum of 8 years on the Cabinet.  Likewise, Executive Center Directors may serve a maximum of 8 years in one rotation.  A person can move from being a DS to being a Executive Center Director (or vice versa) but cannot serve more than a total of 14 years combined.  While church law does not bind us, Conference Lay Leaders are elected for a 4 year (one quadrennium) term.  By way of translation, this means that over the next 2 years, 7 out of 10 Cabinet positions will have a new person serving in leadership.  Among current District Superintendents the Central, East, North and West District Superintendents will each be facing a change sometime in the next 2 years.  Two of the three Executive Center Director positions face a possible change.  And, if we continue with our tradition in Conference Lay Leadership assignment, we will have a new Conference Lay Leader in the Fall of 2016.

I invite the attentive reader to take the issue of succession planning one step further. We are in the midst of a massive shift in clergy retirements with the slow rolling wave of “baby boomer” retirements peaking somewhere around 2018.  Peering closer, a disproportionate number of those retirements will take place among clergy providing senior pastor leadership for the largest 1/3 of our churches.

With worship, prayer and careful spiritual discernment, we wrestled in retreat over the key factors we must have in a new generation of leadership, especially clergy leadership on the Cabinet and in some of our strategic churches and lay leadership positions. Put differently, what are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

Non-Negotiables

  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

What I like to call the “big 3” will drive the train in selection making.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focused on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

These big 3 core commitments are not up for debate. Together as a Conference we have, in deep faith and prayer, wrestled long and hard to arrive at a strong consensus around this core.  We are not going to engage in wasted time and effort to reinvent the wheel.  If someone is not committed to them, they don’t need to be on the Cabinet in either a lay or clergy leadership position.

While only one position faces a Disciplinary mandated change at Conference 2016 (The Central District Superintendent), these key appointments plus other significant lay leadership selections and the filling of positions vacated by the retirement of senior pastors are linked to each other.  Thus, over the next 5 or 6 months, I will be intentionally instigating a series of conversations about the impact of succession planning on the faithfulness and fruitfulness of mission and ministry in the Central Texas Conference.  I’ll be engaged in the standard conversations – with District Superintendency Committees, Leadership Centers’ Core Teams, and through the Cabinet with various Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committees.  But I also hope to stir up a large variety of other avenues for seeking advice and input.  This is not a casting call for nominations!  It is an invitation to be a part of a floating conversation and prayer filled discernment.

We are not seeking the perfect DS, Lay Leader, or Executive Center Director. No one is perfect.  Christ alone is the sovereign Lord of the church.  We will not be taking “votes” on who should be selected in clergy appointments.  Rather, I call us to engage in transparent holy conversations.  Evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness based on the core non-negotiables is essential.  Through it all, together, I invite us to be in submitted prayer and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.